Obama and Romney are locked up in the polls, but a few days ago, Gallup asked a question with a slightly different twist on things: Which candidate do you expect will win?
Answer: Obama 56, Romney 38. Fully 81 percent of Democrats think so, and 58 percent of independents (31 percent of whom said they think Romney will win).
It isn't shocking that people recognize the advantages of incumbency, or that they seem to acknowledge that the Mittster doesn't exactly peel the paint off the walls when he gives a speech. The interesting question is whether this perception actually can affect results.
This was the theory of the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, who coined the term "spiral of silence" to describe, as Wikipedia puts it, "the process by which one opinion becomes dominant as those who perceive their opinion to be in the minority do not speak up because they fear isolation from society." Noelle-Neumann's own complicity in the rise of the Third Reich casts those words in a rather creepy light, although it doesn't necessarily invalidate the idea.
Let's think of a far less creepy example. You go to a Super Bowl party. You're not a huge fan but you're mildly for (say) the Giants. But most everyone there is for (say) the Broncos. You may not change your rooting interest, but as you hear various people deliver sermons on why the Broncos will surely win, your expectations will probably follow suit.
This doesn't matter much in May, but it could matter a lot in October. Some percentage of voters--I have no idea how many; 1 or 2 percent?--don't really follow politics and don't really care who wins but feel compelled to vote for some reason and mostly just want to pick the winner so that they can say they voted for the winner. Somewhat less unseriously, there is another percentage of people who have certain thoughts but really wait until the last week to hear what their trusted friends and co-workers think. I'd expect this 18-point gap will shrink substantially, but if it doesn't, then Romney will never really develop any momentum.